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28: July 13, 2009


Word Has It that Michael Jackson Has Passed Away




In my English classes here at my university in Japan I have resorted, over the years, to a variety of elaborate schemes at the outset of lessons to pair my students off with random partners for conversation practice. The trick is to get them talking to a different partner each time, so I have used blood type, month of birth, last digit of ID number, etc., as sorting devices.

My personal favorite has always been the “Lovers Gambit”: Each student receives an identity card bearing the name of a celebrity or fictional character, after which they are told to roam the classroom seeking their beloved partner. Thus “Romeo” tries to locate “Juliet,” “Minnie Mouse” tries to pin down “Mickey,” and at some point in the festivities I will inevitably be approached by a befuddled student bearing the card that reads “a 13-year-old boy.” “Be patient,” I advise. “He’ll soon enough find you.”

Such was Michael Jackson’s universal fame and appeal. Such was his unique capacity to bridge cultures the world over with his infectious tunes, his electrifying dance moves, and his immutable status as a target of too-easy pedophilia jokes.

I used to characterize myself as the Anti-Michael in the sense that, whereas Michael found himself in the grip of an eyebrow-raising degree of affection for children, I have always found myself in the grip of an eyebrow-raising degree of terror of them. In an earlier post, I mentioned that my daily walk to the university takes me past a school. Actually it’s two schools: an elementary school on the right, followed hard-upon by a junior high school on the left, constituting my personal Scylla and Charybdis.* In order to avoid sharing the sidewalk with hordes of gaijin-mocking Japanese youths, I’m forced to make my departure either absurdly early in the morning or at mid-day.

Thus, I have always thought, there is this one massive distinguishing feature between Michael and me—attitudes toward children—towering over myriad trivial ones, e.g. the facts that I was white at birth, never had the pleasure of dating Brooke Shields, and have actually dropped several babies off balconies for no better reason than the fact that, well, they let me.

Just kidding about the babies, of course: have nothing against the squishy little blobs as a class, apart from the fact that they soon enough morph into gaijin-mocking children. But the thing is, amid all the blather we’ve been hearing about Michael since his passing two weeks ago, I keep stumbling over these unnerving nuggets of similarity between him and me.

We are, after all, Midwestern boys, born only three years and a couple hours’ drive apart. And even our attitudes toward the younger generation aren’t quite as diametrically opposed as they first appear.

We’re hearing now that Michael’s identification with kids stemmed from a desire on his part to retreat to the last happy age in his life, before it degenerated into one endless series of rehearsals and shows. He fit in with children so well because he had convinced himself that he still was one.

Now, substitute “college students” for “kids” in the previous paragraph, and you’ve got a description of me that fits a little too snugly for comfort. Just this year I published a book with no plot, thesis, or theme, and indeed with no other purpose whatsoever than to allow its author to recapture the sheer brain-freezing pleasure of his college days. A hefty chunk of my earlier memoir details the misadventures of a college English instructor who struggles to remember that he is, in fact, a teacher and not merely a pudgier and balder classmate—replete with sleepovers at his home and plenty of groping. Yikes. What else, I began to wonder, links us? And so the following rump list suddenly materialized...

1. Justin Timberlake
Neither Michael nor I wants that fellow anywhere near our sister.

2. Sleep disorders
In recent years, while I’ve at least managed to ditch the anti-anxiety meds, I’ve still needed a dose of over-the-counter sleeping medication plus a half bottle of wine to flip off the switch on a typical night, with the occasional slug of cough syrup thrown in. I thought that was pretty edgy till reading about Michael’s regimen. Good heavens: forty Vicodin and a dozen Xanax a day? Plus the regular use of anesthetics? When it comes to sleeping aids, I realized that I was a Pygmy to Michael’s Zulu, a Fuji to Michael’s Everest, a Goodyear to Michael’s Hindenburg. A mere Jermaine or Tito, if you will, to Michael’s Michael.

I’m such an innocent that I hadn’t even realized that “anesthetics” constituted a category of drugs available for abuse. I thought one had to require surgery to get at them. About a year ago, I was told that I would immediately have to undergo an outpatient procedure for a hernia. This was in June, mind you—a time of year here in Japan when the sky lightens at about 4 in the morning and we expats stagger around like so many Al Pacinos trudging through the foggy Arctic tundra in Insomnia. I deemed requiring surgery in such a season one of the luckiest things that has ever happened to me.

The anesthesia didn’t disappoint. I dove into that sweet chemically-induced mist with all the mindless glee of these chappies. The moment I came around, my first words to the attending technician were, “I want to do that again.” I suspect Michael, if revived, would voice the same sentiment, albeit more mellifluously.

3. Brooke Shields as masturbation material
I’m guessing that both of us recognized Brooke’s obvious charms and yet, for whatever reason, never got around to using them as fodder. (In my case, I think it had a lot to do with the fact that Brooke was fated to share her prime with Phoebe Cates.)

4. Ola Ray’s tits
At the same time, I’m betting that Michael used Google search technology to locate nude images of his Thriller video costar within the first month that it became available, same as me. Yes, yes, I know. I know. But come on: nobody’s that gay.

5. Don’t Stop Till We Get Enough
He got hammered in the press over and over and over. The artistic criticism was bad enough. (Everything he did post-Off the Wall disappointed. Each album failed to measure up to its predecessor. Etc.) The personal attacks...well, no need to recycle all that yet again.

For all that, he never stopped planning his next move. Michael rose to the top. He outsang his cynics. He outdanced his doubters. He outperformed the pessimists. Every time he got knocked down, he got back up. Every time you counted him out, he came back in! Michael never stopped! Michael never stopped! Michael never stopped!

All right, I might want to think about giving the Rev. Al Sharpton a bit of attribution for that last paragraph. Whatever the source, it’s a point well taken. And while I cannot quite summon up sufficient generosity of spirit to say that there “wasn’t nothing strange about daddy,” I heartily agree with the elegant coda, “It was strange what daddy had to deal with.”

Now, my status as a public figure is risible. I’m the Safari to Michael’s Explorer. I’m the Who to Michael’s Horton. I’m the—oh, right, I already covered all that. So, as obscure as I am, it stands to reason that the criticisms of my work are that much more so. I’ve whined about how much nasty comments hurt in this space before and do not wish to risk the already thinning patience of my readers with reruns, but let me tell you this: When you wake up one morning with a wine-and-sleeping-pill-and-cough-syrup hangover, log onto Amazon, and find reader reviews like some of those that I’ve gotten—and you also find yourself having a perfectly bearable day job to fall back on anyway—well, it’s awfully tempting to pull a Roberto Duran and say No mas! to creative endeavors in general.

If Michael could put up with all that he put up with as long as he put up with it, then I suppose I can put up with my own nattering nabobs of negativism a little bit longer. And that clattering you hear is me laying aside my Shield of Snarkiness just long enough to say that Michael really was an inspiration.

Strange what daddy has to deal with, indeed.


* Sorry if it’s a little early in the morning where you are to be fielding classical mythological references.